Digital Carrots II: Meat Brains

In the most important neurological finding I have read all year, mammals have correlated but entirely separable systems for wanting and liking. Ponder that a moment. To some extent, that seems intuitively obvious: you can get what you want and not be happy. This is not, however, about mis-calculating how happy something will make you. Your basic theory of the world presumably includes some version of, “If Bob keeps doing X, he must like X.” You might make exceptions if X is heroin.

Some have proposed that MMOs should be in that same category of unhealthy addictions, and I suddenly find myself forced to take the idea seriously. You don’t need surgery or drugs to skirt that connection between motivation and enjoyment, any more than you need to hack the server to exploit flaws in the system. Our brains are meat hardware that worked well enough to reproduce itself on the savannah, while modern memetic software can develop quite powerful malware.

Let’s make that more concrete. Your brain gives you the same neurochemicals for watching that little bar fill that it would for actually accomplishing something. Even if you know you are accomplishing little, we can fill that bar faster than reality could and give you lots of numbers popping up telling you that you are advancing. There are lots of flaws in the human brain we can exploit to make you feel like you need to continue, preferably keeping you from pausing to consider whether you are having much fun or if you should stop. Too many players quit when you make them stop to think about whether they should keep going.

Why play worthless “social games”? We have found formulas that line up with how our brains pass out neurochemicals, even if they provide no value, even if they provide no enjoyment. The relevant neurochemicals go together often enough that you are conditioned to think you are having fun when you are just feeling compelled to continue. Cognitive dissonance should carry you through the rest.

Sometimes you take a week or two off and are eager to get back. Sometimes you take a week or two off and completely lose the motivation to log on. For some in that first case, congratulations, you really are having fun and not just following your highjacked motivational programming. For some, I worry that we just failed to make it through withdrawl symptoms the way that people in the second case successfully did.

: Zubon

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to refresh the waitstaff in my Facebook restaurant. I wish I were kidding.

8 thoughts on “Digital Carrots II: Meat Brains”

  1. I think we as gamers should be much more ranting about game design that appeals to the most primitive simian parts of our brain. I like this expression, I picked it up somewhere and it explains what modern habitual daily crap game design nowadays is all about quite well.

  2. Another great post.

    I’m presently at this phase where games are losing their appeal. Call it growing up. Or I’ve recognized, and outgrown, their tenterhooks designed to keep one playing even beyond when you’re having fun. Or I’ve realized that these pixels and data we so love are, like so much in this world, all transitory.

    Don’t get me wrong, I still love playing games. It’s what’s defined me this past 15 years.

    And I do agree with Longasc, games should go beyond appealing to our primitive, conditioned responses. To do only that would, IMO, cheapen us as gamers and reduce us to Pavlovian buttonmashers.

  3. What an excellent article! I have wondered about this recently, when I took a little break from MMOs to play some single player games. I find it increasingly unappealing to log into LOTRO or WOW now.

    But I do have this nagging feeling I *should*…

  4. Very interesting. I’ve often pondered my motivations when playing LoTRO and asked from time to time ‘am I actually enjoying myself now’. Sometimes the answer is ambivalent.

    Though don’t get me wrong, I’m still finding plenty of moments that I do enjoy, I do get satisfaction and I do miss it when I don’t play…hmmm, but is that last more a case of feeling I ought to be playing because if I don’t my character progression will fall behind everyone else. Is that what I’m really missing and what makes me log on sometimes? Do I want to, do I need to, do I like to..fair questions for us to ask ourselves.

  5. I should have found a way to work in a Rainbows End reference. One of the major characters is an agent known as “Rabbit,” someone with literal digital carrots who makes a play for the mind-control system MacGuffin. I am mollified by the sour grapes that it is pointless to make subtle allusions that very few people would get. Not that I have let that stop me before.

  6. I tend to solo more than anything else and have noticed that I loose interest when I hit that point in the game where everything starts to be more difficult than fun. Prior to that point there is a feeling of “I’m accomplishing that which I could not accomplish in Game X; I’m not just wasting my time”.

    Did you manage to get all those mini quests out of the way to accomplish the completion of that class critical quest? Why yes indeed, all on my own! Great! Because the last step of this quest requires that you take on a mob that is Elite and requires a full raid or grind out 20-30 Skirmishes for the needed item…Think I’ll take a break now (sighs).

    Oh, by the way, from here on in it’s pretty much the same. Of course you can delay that lack of interest by becoming a group/raid player until you realize it’s just a different sort of “grind” that you can’t fool yourself into.

    Perhaps it’s just me, but games tend to teach you that doing “X” will pretty much give you “Y” almost every time. So long as you can still do “X” to get “Y” your secure in knowing that you did not waste time (in your mind). Sadly, it’s the tedium that keeps us from questioning our accomplishments. Change that and some adapt (Raiders grind instances, solo players raid) while others leave.

  7. Neat follow-up: cocaine vaccine makes cocaine unsatisfying but does little to curb craving. That is, addicts are still desperate for a fix, but the cocaine just doesn’t react in their bodies with the “vaccine.” High: gone; motivation: same.

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